Julia Langdon: A woman MP making all-too-familiar sacrifices

It is a demanding lifestyle that can be made to work with nannies and throwing money at the problem
  • @IndyVoices

There are two principal characters in Tall Poppies, one of the novels published by Louise Mensch before she became an MP, and they are both women who had almost everything they thought they wanted. One had a privileged life but would like to have had the chance to prove herself at work, while the other had achieved a successful career but lacked the comforts of a happy private life. The book was published at about the time the author was selected as the Conservative candidate for Corby and East Northamptonshire, and according, at least, to this flyleaf summary of the plot, the future of the two characters she created then has now proved an eerily accurate prediction of what lay ahead for the conflicting lives of Louise Mensch herself. They became victims of the "tall poppy syndrome".

Louise Mensch is – or was – a tall poppy. She is smart and clever and stylish. She has an Oxford degree in English (Anglo-Saxon and Norse a speciality) and she has published 15 books, and while they may be of questionable literary merit they have nevertheless sold and they have done so in many languages. She is 41 and has three children, she is married to the manager of a rock band in New York, she may (or may not) have dabbled in a little light drugs with (or without) Nigel Kennedy when she worked in the music industry and she has opinions on everything. She has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter, or she did have until June when she launched a rival micro-blogging site in the name of Menshn, which she helpfully explained was not a pun on her surname but a play on the word "mention". Oh and she is also an MP.

Her decision, announced yesterday, to leave the House of Commons for family reasons will have caused considerable surprise to her colleagues because, as is evident, Ms Mensch likes a mensh, has accordingly made herself one of the most visible and articulate members of the 2010 intake of MPs, and has gratifyingly appeared to be on a fast track to promotion. Her high political profile and personal ambition were clearly interconnected: she had already expressed some disappointment at not yet having achieved a perch on the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder and there were strong indications that she might have expected an early preferment, not least in the Prime Minister's effusive response to her letter of resignation.

Ordinary members of the human race may be unsurprised by one woman's inability to manage a political career with a husband across the Atlantic, a family of three young children (who are the progeny of her first marriage and presumably need to be kept in touch with their father) while simultaneously keeping sane. Those circumstances are made even more pressing by the fact that Ms Mensch does not drive a car. This is not an insuperable obstacle in life, but for someone who is competing in the superwoman stakes and also nursing a constituency which has a number of rural villages containing the sort of people who might hold the balance of your parliamentary majority when it is under 2,000 votes, it is a somewhat critical detail.

But here we come to the nub of what was surprising about yesterday's announcement. She was an "A" list candidate at the last election, a preferred person, someone whose political baggage had a label on it reading "going somewhere". As far as many of her fellow MPs were concerned that "A" stood for ambition, above all else, and this is the point: ambitious people in politics are expected to have sorted their private lives and their families and found a way to make them fit around the career template. It is a demanding and very difficult lifestyle and it can be made to work with nannies and grannies and throwing money at the problem.

Some women MPs manage it, but history shows that some of our most successful women politicians have been childless while those who have had children have often had to make sacrifices. Shirley Williams ducked a couple of crucial decisions which could have changed the fortunes of the SDP because of her family. The Thatcher family is a questionable advertisement for a happy outcome. If it is going to work all the ducks have to be in a row. That means having a supportive partner, who is preferably the father of the children and also preferably in the same country. It is even better, perhaps, if like the Labour MP, Yvette Cooper, your chap is also doing the same job as you, even if he is Ed Balls; at least he will have some comprehension of the scale of the problems involved at the micro-level (homework, football kit, school plays, parents' evenings etc).

But there are always victims in the families of women who seek to do too much; sometimes it's the partners and the marriage but more often it is the children. There has been a depressingly high number of children of MPs who have suffered and who have sought an outlet for their unhappiness in drink and drugs and sometimes suicide. It is scarcely surprising: MPs are, of course, all self-selected – they choose the crazy life they have to lead – and they are all tall poppies, too. The tragedy of the tall poppy syndrome is that they are cut down.

Julia Langdon is a former political editor of the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Telegraph, and a biographer of Mo Mowlam